By most measures, it's never been a better time to be gay. But all the encouraging steps toward a more accepting America may not mean much when you're called "faggot", and slammed into a locker.
Polling shows that America has never been on better terms with sexual diversity -- from equal economic rights to gay marriage to the belief that gay issues will one day be non-issues. In younger demographics, we're already there. A recent Gallup-USA Today poll showed that among those 18 to 29, 73 percent are fine with same-sex marriage.
The same poll showed that people who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender, are more optimistic than ever. Three out of four said they were generally out with others, and nine in ten said their communities have become more accepting.
The media's LGBT portrayal has gone from invisible to mainstream. Gay couple Cam and Mitchell are the affectionately hilarious heart of TV's Modern Family. Neil Patrick Harris is an openly gay man, who plays a ladies' man, for an audience that doesn't care. How I Met Your Mother was just renewed for a ninth season.
The last election deepened the twilight of the day when gay marriage (or gay anything) could bring out the conservative electorate. On gay issues, the religious right finds itself a drum line in search of a lost parade.
But does tolerance trickle down? What does statistical and prime-time acceptance mean in the unforgiving halls of an average junior high?
Journalist and activist Dan Savage -- whose It Gets Better LGBT suicide prevention project has literally saved lives -- calls these days of dawning sexual enlightenment "the best of times and the worst of times."
For those with accepting families, progressive communities, and determined school support, LGBT life -- indeed -- has never been better. For others, it can actually be tougher than the days of closeted anonymity. Seeing validation and acceptance in the media, while experiencing rejection and bullying in life can be especially isolating. If the world is OK with being gay; why isn't it OK with me?
Both straight and gay students say being called "gay" is the single worst form of harassment. Gay students hear anti-gay slurs as often as 26 times a day. LGBT students are three times as likely as non-LGBT students to say they don't feel safe at school. Some 90 percent of them report being harassed or assaulted in the past year.
School days can be harrowing for anyone who is different: too short, too heavy, too skinny, too shy, too anything that puts them in the sights of the predators inevitably drawn to the social stragglers. Multiply that by the pain experienced by a child whose difference - real or perceived -- crosses into the perilous territory of sexual identity, and different can take on life-altering dimensions.
There is a clear connection between childhood bullying and self-esteem. The consequences are measured in depression, self-loathing (maybe they're right about me), anger, hopelessness and -- tragically -- suicide. Although factors other than sexuality are certainly involved, LGBT students are four times more likely than hetero students to take their own lives.
True, the worst of the harassment tends to be a point in time. A seven year study of U.K. teens, by educational psychology professor Joseph Robinson, University of Illinois, Urbana- Champagne, published in the current issue of Pediatrics, reports that LGBT bullying goes down with age. More than 50 percent of gay and bisexual boys were bullied at ages 13-14, versus only 6 percent at ages 18-20. That implies that bullies grow out of it, or that older youth can simply avoid them. Probably both.
The vulnerable years may be few. But in those years: What cues are delivered? What life lessons are taught? What beliefs are shaped about personal value and place in the world?
Yes, things are getting better. But the emotional wilds of an average middle, junior and even high school are never going to be as welcoming as polls and sitcom plot lines would have us believe. It's a mistake to confuse progress with solution. Bullying is real, it leaves scars, and we still have a long way to go.
Just ask a "faggot" -- as he picks his books up off the floor.